Inception: Further Thoughts

Between them, Niall Harrison, Adam Roberts, and, in the comments to my post about it (starting here), Brian Francis Slattery, have talked me over to their reading of Inception--the film and the concept at its core--as a metaphor for storytelling and the artifice of filmmaking (which probably means that my original take on the film, as an SFnal story about learning the world, is, if not off-base, then probably no more productive than obsessing over whether Cobb is still dreaming in the last scene).  As I say to Brian, however, I think that as an analogy to storytelling, dreaming is a very poor fit.  Niall is right to point out that most of us don't dream as vividly and imaginatively as the more common filmic represenation of dreams--vividly colored surrealist landscapes--would have us believe.  My dreams, the ones I remember at least, usually feature familiar settings and actions (though I did once dream that I was investigating the murder of Kermit the frog--I'm still pissed about being woken up before getting to the bottom of that mystery) that have been scrambled into illogic by my sleeping brain.  If it's unfair to condemn Inception for not being The Cell, however, it still seems valid to me to compare it to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the Buffy episode "Restless," both of which feature dreams that are entirely mundane in their settings and events (or, in the latter case, as mundane as settings and events in Buffy get), and whose strangeness is derived from the illogical manner in which the characters move within those scenes, and their atypical reactions to them.  Inception's dreams, meanwhile, are entirely linear and entirely logical, and though I accept that this is because storytelling, and not dreams, is actually the film's focus, the discrepancy only serves to highlight how strained the film's central metaphor is.

Niall, Adam and Brian argue that Inception is drawing our attention to the similar actions we perform in dreams and when consuming a story--accepting illogic as logic, filling in the interstices between 'scenes' in order to create a coherent story in our brains.  But to my mind these are actually two distinct and very different acts.  I mentioned the second season finale of House in one of my replies to Brian.  In the opening scene, House is shot, and spends the rest of the episode trying to diagnose a patient from his hospital room.  In the climactic scene, he has a revelation about the patient's illness while talking to his fellows, and the next scene shows them in a stairwell continuing to talk.  House turns around and asks: "How did I get here?  I was just in my hospital room," and realizes that he's still in a coma following his shooting.  It's a very neat and wrongfooting moment because it draws attention to an action that the audience performs automatically--filling in the gaps in a story so that it can form a coherent, lifelike whole in our minds--but it also draws our attention to the difference between dream and story, and the reason that reading Inception as a metaphor for storytelling strikes me as empty.  When House realizes the illogic of his experiences, he ceases to believe in his perceived reality, in the story happening around him.  I'm sure that most people have had the experience of being immersed in a dream and, as they draw closer to consciousness, realizing some logical flaw in it, at which point the dream dissipates.  Consuming story isn't like that.  Momentarily wrongfooting as it is, the metafictional gag at the end of House's second season doesn't cause the audience to stop believing in the show, because the audience was already aware of the story's fictionality.  Unlike dreams, we know that a story is unreal and accept that unreality.  We know, even if it's not something we think about very often, that we are active participants in the creation of the story, and that we are lending our intellectual and emotional faculties to something unreal.  It's a knowing, conscious act, not the unaware acceptance of the illogic of dreams.  Dream isn't a parallel for story; it's the opposite of it.

The other reason that I don't like this reading of Inception (besides, as I say to Brian, that I'm really not sure what Nolan is trying to say when he compares storytelling to what is essentially a mind-rape) is that it reduces the film to this metaphor.  The substance of the film ceases to matter because its purpose is merely to call attention to its own artificiality.  The experience of watching the film is not the point, and therefore it doesn't matter that this experience is so leaden, because the purpose of the film is the realization that comes hours or days after one has finished watching it.  This doesn't have to be an unsuccessful approach--once again I'm moved to compare Inception to Primer, which so completely avoids delivering anything like a satisfying viewing experience that it's almost necessary to watch the film twice in order to get anything out of the experience--but it does require more courage and intelligence than Inception seems to possess.  I agree with Niall, in other words, that an intellectual exercise can be thrilling in its own right, without appealing to the emotion, but Inception, to my mind, isn't.  That said, it's precisely because Inception is so substance-less that I'm growing more charitable towards it as I move away from it.  Like a dream, the experience of watching the film has faded away almost entirely, while the interpretation offered by Niall, Adam and Brian--so much more palatable in a few, well-written paragraphs than in a two hour film--lingers on.


Anonymous said…
I liked this take on the film:
Raz Greenberg said…
I think it's unfair for any movie to be compared to "The Cell" - because "The Cell" was such a terrible, terrible film.
If anything, I think the best SF film to illustrate the dream/reality border is Alex Proyas' "Dark City" - still one of the best, under-appreciated genre films of the 1990s.
Anonymous said…
I agree with you Abigail.

I decided that Frank was in a dream in Mombasa, because the events that happened there were so ridiculous that they could only happen in a dream (sudden firefights in the middle of the street in which nobody dies, Saito turning up out of nowhere for no good reason, the street that gets narrower and narrower as he runs down it).

However, there is another place where this also happens - in the movies, where characters are moved from place to place by authorial fiat, and audiences (mostly) just accept it.

The problem being that "evidence of a dream" looks exactly the same as "evidence of a clumsy author" from the outside.
Niall said…

"Unlike dreams, we know that a story is unreal and accept that unreality"

We know that academically, and if we stop to think about what we're doing. I'm pretty sure we forget it when caught up in a story, though -- isn't that sort of transport precisely what most people are looking for when they read? -- so I don't think I can agree that dreams and story are in opposition.

"an intellectual exercise can be thrilling in its own right, without appealing to the emotion"

That wasn't the point I was trying to make, though -- I was trying to say that "intellectual thrill" *is* an emotional response, so it's a contradiction in terms to say that a film is intellectually thrilling but emotionless.

But then, I found Primer a hugely satisfying film.

"I'm really not sure what Nolan is trying to say"

You're not convinced by my simple "don't trust stories" explanation, then? :-)


"The problem being that "evidence of a dream" looks exactly the same as "evidence of a clumsy author" from the outside."

This is only a problem if you think the film is "solvable", that it's possible to determine which level is "real". Given the ambiguity of the ending, I don't think this is possible, so the ambiguity of Mombasa becomes a virtue.

(You can still think the film *should* be solvable, of course, but at that point you're not critiquing the film for what it is.)

I strongly believe that no one ever truly forgets that they are consuming a story rather than reality, not unless they're actually dreaming, or insane. Would we be able to to watch an episode of your average cop or doctor drama, or a horror film, if we didn't make that distinction? On the contrary, the very fact that we search for works of fiction that overwhelm, however imperfectly, our ability to distinguish fact from fiction is, to my mind, an indication of how deeply ingrained that ability is.

You're not convinced by my simple "don't trust stories" explanation, then? :-)

You're being a little disingenuous there. My exact words were "I'm really not sure what Nolan is trying to say when he compares storytelling to what is essentially a mind-rape." To my mind, that's a pretty powerful overstatement, especially if his point is merely that we should distrust stories.
Niall said…
Hmm. I strongly disagree with that first bit, so we may be at an impasse there. Although it partly hangs on what you mean by "truly forgets"; I might say, would any horror ever scare us if we didn't, for a moment, truly forget that distinction between fiction and reality? It also hangs on what you mean by "dreams"; as I said in my post, I find any arguemnt that starts with there being one truth about the nature of dreams unsatisfactory. Dreams in which you're aware you're dreaming is not a concept Christopher Nolan made up, after all.

As for the second bit, I think inception is a good model for how stories gain their power: they give us an experience that inevitably smuggles along with it a lot of implied ideas. Stories are precisely attempts to create experience within our heads, and I do think they continue to unpack for years afterwards; I think the books I read as a child have had an indelible shaping effect on my character.

Now, when I pick up a novel and start reading, the experience is consensual, but that doesn't mean the story doesn't have its own ideology, some of which will be unconscious on the part of the author, but some of which may be conscious. And think of how often you hear a cry of "betrayal" when a story doesn't meet expectations; that speaks to a sense that consent has been abused, surely. So I don't think "we should distrust stories" deserves "merely", I think it's a quite vital and profound point. And I don't particularly think the two inceptions presented in the film are overstatements as models for some types of story, although like Martin in the other thread I think I find "mind-rape" a bit reductive. The inception on Fisher is clearly malicious, but you could understand Cobb's inception on Mal as a literal example of breaking through a false consciousness.
Martin said…
I think it's unfair for any movie to be compared to "The Cell" - because "The Cell" was such a terrible, terrible film.

The Cell is great! It was also the last time Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn gave decent performances so of historical interest too.

It is a shame Tarsim Singh's follow up film took so long and was ultimately so insubstantial but I still think he is a very interesting director.

I think the example of horror films actually plays to my viewpoint rather than yours. A lot of people crave the excitement and adrenalin rush that accompany fear, but actual fear is, well, scary. No one really wants to find themselves running from a serial killer through the woods in the dead of night. So people go to scary movies in order to get a controlled dose of fear under circumstances they know to be safe. If we didn't know that the movie was unreal, we wouldn't get a kick out of the negative emotions it aroused in us. Meanwhile, people who actually get off on danger don't go to the movies for it. They take up extreme sports or go into high-risk lines of work.

I do, however, take your point about stories slowly unpacking in their readers' minds and having unintended, long-term consequences. I just think that as delivery method for this point, the metaphor of dream manipulation is a singularly bad one.

Martin, Raz:

I split the difference between you on The Cell. It's a pretty bad film (and I don't even think Lopez's performance is that great), but it's visually stunning, and I can't think of another movie that goes as far as it does in representing the human unconscious as a wild, irrational space (though I haven't seen Dark City). It is telling, though, that so much of its imagery is made up of quotes from surrealist, but consciously created, art.
Niall said…
"So people go to scary movies in order to get a controlled dose of fear under circumstances they know to be safe."

Yes -- but of course, I'd argue the pleasure comes from remembering that you are in a safe environment, after you've been made to jump out of your seat. :-)
Raz Greenberg said…
Hey, I have no argument with you about "The Cell" being a beautiful-looking film - it's just a shame that the visuals were wasted on such a dumb script that ripped off pretty much every other significant serial-killer film, and offered no surprises or excitement.
I don't know if the visuals of "Dark City" will meet your expectations for an accurate representation of dreams (is such thing even possible?) but the film's visuals are gorgeous, and the film is extraordinarily good.
As Niall points out, The Cell is actually a less accurate representation of dreams than Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don't think it's realistic on that level any more than it captures the reality of the psychology of serial killers, but it is stunning, and comes closer to the popular concept of what dreams are like - or, more accurately, to dream as a literary conceit rather than a reality - than either of the other films.
Matt Denault said…
FWIW, while I generally agree with Brian's understanding of the film and a little more hesitatingly with Niall's, I'm very much of your opinion, Abigail, on its effectiveness: it struck me as extraordinarily dull for how loud it was.

I'm a quite happy consumer of "don't trust stories" stories, and I also don't have any problem with ambiguous endings--and as far as I can see, Inception seems purposefully designed to resist "solving" as a story. But I think the two together here are thus conceptually problematic, in that you can't do "don't trust stories" while refusing to allow any story to be told.

This is also where I agree with Abigail that the film displays a certain lack of courage, and unwillingness to follow through on its ideas. If it is a "don't trust stories" story, then even the possibility that the ending reunion is "true" seems to betray that idea; I am likewise not sure what to make of the concept of the tokens, that there are things you can use to "test" whether something is real or a dream/story. (For reasons such as these I'm a bit skeptical about the dream-stories metaphor; also because the movie makes points like "you can never remember the start of a dream" which is true for dreams, but not for stories.) On the other hand, to the extent that the story was a metaphor for filmmaking, that suggests a ton of ideas that could have made it more interesting in that regard, both informationally and visually. Why are certain roles cast, how are settings chosen to achieve affect, etc.? And then parallels like both the constructed dreams and constructed movie sets having edges, borders.

I find that any such rich metaphorical reading tends to make the dullness of actually sitting and watching the film that much more apparent, and unsatisfying.
Noah Motion said…
Isn't the point of comparing dreams and movies (or stories, more generally) that, despite the fact that they are not real, we have a real emotional (and/or intellectual) response to them?

The following essay makes this point and discusses the dream-as-moviemaking metaphor (it's the first place I read about it):
I suspect that's the reasoning behind the film, yes. But you know, apples and oranges are also both fruit, and my contention is that despite this point of similarity between them, there are more differences between dreams and stories than similarities.
Anonymous said…
occasional reader, never commenter.

Since I clicked on your blog and you were discussing dreams, I simply had to say the following: last night a dream about making dinner for my family featured you showing up and discussing linguistics (Welsh predominated, but Hebrew and Farsi were in there also) with myself and my father. You mentioned at one point that you'd moved to England.

Excellent dress sense, by the way, and a natty brunette crop.
violet said…
I don't think it's about just not trusting stories, full stop, burn the reel. It's more an exploration of the stories we all have inside, how we deal with them, and how they interact with all the other narratives flitting around outside of ourselves. It's the wheel Dom draws—creation and perception, with narrative in-between. And just as we've all had weird and fragmentary dreams, I'm sure we've all had dreams where you wake up and realize you just dreamt a whole, coherent story. Maybe a world. And then, typically, you immediately forget large chunks of it, a phenomena that likely contributes to how we think of dreams.

@Abigail — It's weird, because I've read some of your other reviews, and I usually find I agree with you about whether a thing is lovely or not quite so much, even if maybe we differ on the specifics. But I disagree about Inception on nearly every point at which disagreement is possible—I find it lovely and engaging and both times I've seen it, my heart feels full of light and energy, even though I know that soon, I'll be crying on my girlfriend's shoulder.
Anonymous said…
I don't think that Dreams and Stories are a bad comparison at all.

Stories being compared to dreams is not a new idea. John Gardner wrote about Fiction as Dream in the 80's, and I'm sure he wasn't the first.

And while I agree that the dreams in Inception are not like the dreams that we have normally, I don't think that Nolan was ever suggesting they were supposed to be. Really the term "dream" isn't even the best way to describe them. People are manufacturing a reality in order to trick Fischer into accepting it and achieve an emotional experience.

That is exactly what fiction is. A story can cause profound change in an audience despite none of it being real. You call it "mind-rape", but that's essentially what any story is.

I also don't think that the film exists only as metaphor. The film doesn't lose anything by working as a blockbuster on one level and a metaphor on another level.

Of course I realize that you don't like the movie, so I can see if you're biased to see things as more negative than they are.

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